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  • Jenny Shank 8:25 pm on 2017/01/06 Permalink
    Tags: anna pitoniak, bethany ball, debut novels, emily ruskovich, , , firsts, , kayla raye whitaker, , , weike wang   

    6 Superb Debut Novels to Read in 2017 

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    The new year brings fresh opportunity for literary discovery in the form of a wave of debut novels. Here are six promising first efforts to look out for, including the story of the raucous friendship between two female cartoonists, a tale of a Chinese immigrant’s son forced into a new identity, and a coming of age novel about a young chemist who discovers a career in science might not offer her a path to happiness.

    Idaho, by Emily Ruskovich (January 3)
    Fans of Western American literature have been anticipating Emily Ruskovich’s debut since her story “Owl” appeared in the 2015 O. Henry Award anthology. Idaho spans 50 years in the story of Ann, a woman living in rural Idaho with her husband, Wade, who is declining due to early onset dementia. Ann is determined to uncover the truth about Wade’s first wife Jenny, in prison for the murder of their daughter. Idaho is a Barnes & Noble Spring 2017 Discover Great New Writers selection.

    The Futures, by Anna Pitoniak (January 17)
    Anna Pitoniak sets her debut novel of young lovers coming to terms with making a living in the big, bad city in 2008 New York, during the financial crash that upended many well-laid plans. Evan Peck and Julia Edwards have been together since their freshman year at Yale, cementing a relationship they believe can help them take on the world. But when they graduate and move to New York, Evan takes a high-pressure job as a hedge fund associate, and Julia struggles to find meaningful work. Get out some popcorn and turn the pages of this debut to see how the tension generated by Evan and Julia’s divergent fates tears at their romance.

    The Animators, by Kayla Raye Whitaker (January 31)
    Terrific novels about complicated friendships among female artists might be a trend, with Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others, Clarie Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, and Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings all riveting readers in recent years. Now comes Kayla Raye Whitaker’s debut, The Animators, about two talented female cartoonists with distinctly different personalities who forge a bond in college and make a splash with their debut film, then must navigate the fallout of success together. The book, another Spring 2017 Discover Great New Writers selection, promises an energetic ride through a tumultuous friendship.

    What to Do About the Solomons, by Bethany Ball (April 4)
    Bethany Ball’s debut about an international family in turmoil will hit bookstores this spring. The story kicks off when authorities raid the Los Angeles home of Marc Solomon, formerly an Israeli navy commando who now faces accusations of money laundering. The rest of the Solomon family, living in a kibbutz in the Jordan River Valley, react to the unfolding scandal in different ways, as their own perspectives and secrets are revealed.

    The Leavers, by Lisa Ko (May 2)
    Lisa Ko’s debut novel The Leavers already has earned an impressive seal of approval: Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. One day, 11-year-old Deming Guo’s mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, heads to her job at a nail salon in the Bronx and never comes back. Two white college professors eventually adopt Deming, move him to upstate New York, and rename him Daniel Wilkinson. But Deming never forgets his heritage or his mother as he searches for answers about the mystery of her disappearance.

    Chemistry, by Weike Wang (May 23)
    Those of us who relish novels that explore the inner lives of scientists can’t wait to read Weike Wang’s debut about a female scientist whose chemistry research fails, leading her to question her life direction. The unnamed narrator’s Chinese parents expect continued excellence from her, and her long-term boyfriend whose research is going swimmingly is ready to marry her, but the narrator isn’t sure she can live up to their expectations. Wang knows her stuff—she graduated from Harvard with degrees in chemistry and public health, before switching her focus to writing. But you don’t have to take my word for it: National Book Award winner Ha Jin praised Chemistry as “a genuine piece of literature: wise, humorous, and moving.”

    The post 6 Superb Debut Novels to Read in 2017 appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Melissa Albert 9:20 pm on 2016/06/14 Permalink
    Tags: , debut novels, , ,   

    On The Girls and the Search for the Extreme: An Interview with Emma Cline 

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    Emma Cline’s debut novel, The Girls, has been on our must-read list since its acquisition was announced in 2014 following a massive bidding war. The novel’s elevator pitch is immediately compelling, promising a fictionalized version of the Manson murders that terrorized the country’s psyche in 1969, teaching a generation of Americans to lock their doors. But Cline’s book has deeper concerns than that sensational chapter of history—it’s a coming-of-age story with teeth, both a pulse-pounding literary thriller and a dangerous paean to the insular, headlong glory of female friendship. On the ragged edge of the Summer of Love, impressionable teen Evie is drawn into the dark, cultish world of Mansonlike figure Russell and his devoted “girls,” led by thrillingly nonconformist Suzanne. The daughter of divorced parents, Evie is lonely and drifting when she first spots Suzanne, and soon finds a place beside her at Russell’s tumbledown ranch. But as Russell makes increasingly twisted demands of his followers, Evie must decide how far she can follow Suzanne into the dark. Sentence by sentence, it might just be the most beautiful book you’ll read this year.

    We talked to author Cline about her book, her process, and the place of girls and girlhood in American culture.

    With protagonist Evie, you capture the way a young girl can be so open to influence and hungry for approval that she’s capable of almost anything at all. How did that become a subject of fascination for you?

    I’m one of five sisters, so I’ve got four younger sisters and we’re all very close in age—like a year apart, each of us. So I grew up in a house of girls and experienced female adolescence as this extended illness in the household. It’s such a particular age and you just want to be loved and seen, no matter where that attention comes from. And in this book, Evie’s not really getting seen by her mother or her father, and there’s someone who sees her and I think that’s such a magnetic situation.

    What was your role among your four other sisters? Which sister were you?

    I’m the oldest. But I wish I had an older sister, looking back. We’re all really good friends, and one of them read many drafts of this book. So I was sort of writing for them; I wanted to write a book that I thought they would like. They’re all big readers and they sort of have very similar taste in books.

    Did you girls grow up in a house of books?

    Yeah. My parents loved mystery and crime, so there was a lot of that, and then I got into literary fiction through school. And I wanted to do a book that would combine the best of both of those things.

    When you were young, what kind of books spoke to you?

    The books that I remember reading a lot of were the Sherlock Holmes books. I worked at a haunted house for a while, in California. It was at a little pumpkin farm and they had a haunted house in the barn.

    Was there anything actually scary about it?

    It was scary to me, but I don’t think it was scary to anyone else. And I would just read Sherlock Holmes books on breaks, before people would walk through. So I love Sherlock Holmes. And Archie comics, a lot of Archie comics. And then when I was a teenager, I got more into books books.

    Did you read books about young girls or did you sort of skip and go straight to literary fiction as a teen?

    No, I definitely read books about young girls. I’m trying to think of the ones I liked the best. What are your favorite books with young protagonists?

    Like, as a kid? The classics—Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Pevensie. The canon.

    Little Women is amazing. Did you ever read Betsy-Tacy and Tib, those books?

    I missed out on those.

    Those are good. And Anne of Green Gables for sure.

    Your story “Marion,” which I loved, shares a lot of elements with The Girls—it’s contemporary but it still has that feeling of dread, and a similarly impressionable female heroine. Why do you think it is in our culture that we’re so fascinated by the story of the wayward lost girl? No matter what the era is, it has that appeal.

    I think it’s because we have a very familiar narrative about teenage girls. And I think a lot of their pain is very invisible because they turn it inwards, whereas I think with young men, it’s more in our culture that young men or young boys will turn their pain outwards and project violence onto others. So I think women have this sort of invisible role, and any time that’s switched and they do do something that’s outward, it becomes more of a story and a source of fascination.

    Do you remember when you first heard about the Manson murders and how that percolated in your mind?

    I’m from California, and it’s such a big part of California mythology. And both my parents grew up in California and were around the same age as Evie is in the book when the murders happened. And for them it was such a big cultural touchstone, so I grew up hearing a lot about it. And there are so many others, besides the Manson family—Jim Jones and Jonestown started in the Bay Area, and then there were the Zodiac murders. There was something in the air, to me, about California in that era, and I sort of always knew I was interested in it and wanted to know more.

    Having your parents as firsthand witnesses to that, did they agree that the widespread feeling of dread, of darkness, was not just something we created with hindsight, but really a thing that was happening?

    I think it was very formative for them. And they really talk about this moment after everything changed: they locked their doors, and that was something that didn’t happen before. I think it was a real moment when the culture had this sort of awkward growing up period, when suddenly the party was over.

    I read a lot of YA. But as I get older, I’m like, “Who do I identify with, the heroine or her mom?” I read an essay you wrote in which you discussed the possibility of becoming someone’s stepmother. When you were writing Evie, were you identifying with her, or were you writing from the perspective of someone who would be Evie’s caregiver?

    For a lot of it, I was thinking about Evie. But in the characters of her parents and the adults around her, it was really important to me that they not be one-dimensional, like “absent mother” or “distracted father” or “evil stepmother.” Just that everyone have the complexity humans have in real life. I don’t think anyone is all bad or all good, and I think it’s interesting the moment you might think someone is all bad and they do one little thing that might reveal them as human.

    So the framing narrative you gave to the bookin which an adult Evie is looking back on the experiences of her younger selfwas that always part of your plan for the book, or did that come after you wrote Evie’s narrative?

    To me, that was always an important part of the book, because that’s where I could imagine the character. I really liked the idea of someone who had been involved with this infamous crime and how that would shape their life after. And a lot of it was thinking about the leftovers of the sixties that I see all the time in California. I was thinking of a character who has to live in the space of something that happened so long ago but that might be the only defining moment of her life.

    Is that an interest of yours, echoes felt within spaces?

    For sure. I don’t know if it’s a California thing—it’s weird because the East Coast has so much more history, it’s such an older space, but somehow California feels very haunted to me.

    There’s something spooky about it.

    It’s like these wide, open spaces, and people who come there because they want to become someone else, to have this freedom. So I think it’s both. It draws people who want extreme living, some extreme expression of self. And that can either be good or bad. And I think that’s what all the darkness comes out of. That search for the extreme.

    But you’re now a New Yorker. Do you feel that as a change in yourself?

    I think I’ll always love the West Coast, and I think I’ll end up back on the West Coast, but New York is a good place to get things done. Because you’re just doing your thing. In California, you’re like, “Let’s go on a hike; let’s eat beautiful food.” In New York, you’re just plugged into the matrix.

    What was your earliest experience of becoming a writer?

    I was a big writer and reader—reader first, and then writer. I think I loved it so much because I was from such a big family. There are seven kids altogether. And I think reading and writing is something you can do in private and you don’t have to share it—and I had to share everything. So it was a way of eking out this little private space.

    In telling Evie’s and Suzanne’s story, it feels like you’re walking a fine line where it could become prurient. Was that a danger you kept in mind, that you wanted to avoid the exploitative possibilities?

    Yes, definitely. And I think for me, the way to avoid exploitation is to really account for the full humanity of a young woman instead of flattening it into cliché. And I think that’s a problem with a lot of our cultural narratives about teenage girls: they often just don’t give them agency. They’re just objects or they’re just acted upon, and there’s no complexity in their response to things. I wanted to write a character that was more than a victim, who was a full person. And I think as a culture we don’t give teenage girls enough credit in that way. Especially in our media and TV shows and fashion. We have this very flat image of teenage girls.

    I don’t want to give anything away, obviously. But there’s this turning point in the book for Evie, where what happens next has the potential to define the rest of her life. Did you always know which way she was going to go at that crossroads?

    There was a moment where I thought it could be something else, but I like stories with moral ambiguity, and I think there’s something more interesting about that. As a culture, we’re very comfortable with that binary of guilty or not guilty. And what would it mean to have to operate in the space between those and make your own story about what happened, without the props of a larger cultural narrative about what your role had been?

    What were you reading when you were working on this?

    The two books I was thinking a lot about were Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill, which I love, which is just an amazing book about female friendship and also an older narrator looking back on her life. And then a beautiful novella by Lorrie Moore called Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? Both of them have complex female characters, and they’re about a formative relationship. I’m really interested in friendship as a subject for fiction, and I think there’s a cultural shift toward that lately. I’m thinking especially of Elena Ferrante. We have all this language to describe marriages and romance, but friendship is so undefined, and again, I like that ambiguity.

    In high school were you more of an Evie, a follower, or were you more like her object of obsession, Suzanne?

    Suzanne. I killed many people. [Laughs] No, I was sort of an observer. Sort of hanging, watching. I didn’t like high school. Did you?

    I liked the second two years. The first two not so much. What kind of a teen were you?

    I don’t know. Ugh. I try not to think that far back. But, I mean, it’s strange what a formative time that is. Every emotion is so intense. The world is so black and white. There’s no room for compromise. Which is insane and not sustainable, but for a moment the world is so alive.

    It’s easy to be the smartest person in the world.

    Oh, yeah, you’re sure of it.

    Can you talk about what you’re working on next?

    I’m working on a novel. It’s still early days, so I don’t, I’m not…But I’m happy to be working again. There was a time when I wasn’t for a little bit. But I was working on short stories, so I have a handful of those, and a larger project, which is set in the present time.

    That’s all you can say, right?


    Are you more of a plotter or a pantser?

    Plotter or a…?

    This might be more YA terminology. Are you a plotter or a seat-of-your-pantser when writing a book?

    Oh, I thought you said panther. I was like, “I’m a panther. Certainly.”

    Right. “I don’t know what it is, but I’m a panther.”

    I think I do a lot of drafts where I’m seeing what’s happening as I’m writing it. And then take a step back, and then organize what I have, and then figure out what I’m missing and how to balance it.

    Can you tell me a bit about what you’re reading right now?

    I’m actually reading Edith Wharton for the first time. Have you read her?

    I’ve been dying to read House of Mirth. Is that the one you’re reading?

    Yes. Oh, my god. So good. I’ve been shocked at how good it is. No one told me that it would read extremely quickly and be totally a pleasure through and through. It’s very contemporary in a weird way.

    That’s how I feel about Dickens. I read Great Expectations and I’m like, this is hilarious.

    Yes! I’m planning out my summer and I’m like, I’ll just read Edith Wharton in the sunshine all summer. And then I read a great book called Private Citizens, by Tony Tulathimutte. It’s an amazing book about San Francisco. It’s the best book I’ve read about internet culture, so I love it. It’s a great, funny novel.

    Anyone else at Random House you’re excited about?

    I’m really excited about George Saunders’ novel.

    Oh, my god, have you read it yet?

    No. You read that?

    I did. I’m in love with it.

    He’s amazing. We were driving in the car today, and I was like, “I’m sitting next to George Saunders.” He’s the nicest guy. He’s an angel.

    The Girls is on sale now.

  • Ester Bloom 6:00 pm on 2016/06/08 Permalink
    Tags: , , debut novels, , , ,   

    Homegoing Traces a Family’s Lives Across Continents and Generations 

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    Any novel that begins in West Africa and follows members of a family across an ocean to America will be compared to Alex Haley’s seminal Rootswhich has now been turned into two television miniseries. Haley’s historical epic didn’t just change the literary landscape; arguably, it changed American culture.

    Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing comes a couple of generations later, but it is another rare achievement, a book that is as successful in detail as it is ambitious in scope, and one that deserves to be read alongside Roots, as well as Edward P. Jones’ The Known WorldToni Morrison’s Belovedand Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger.

    The institution of slavery seems, in some ways, like an inexhaustible source for fiction, offering conflict, drama, poignancy, heroes, and villains, much in the way that war does. But while war novels proliferate, slavery novels do not, possibly because, in America, the subject still feels too raw. Perhaps authors are intimidated by the notion of contending with normalized, state-sanctioned evil, or perhaps by the standards against which their work would be measured: Beloved is widely considered to beone of, if not the, Great American Novel, and conventional wisdom at the time held that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped start the Civil War.

    If Gyasi is intimidated, though, there is no evidence of it in these pages. Her writing is assured and her storytelling confident from the moment she begins her tale on Africa’s Gold Coast. Three hundred years, and as many pages, later, she ends it with two Americans visiting contemporary Ghana. At the outset of the tale, two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are separated by circumstance: one, who is affiliated with the element of Fire, stays in Africa; the other, whose element is Water, is kidnapped, abused, and shipped across an ocean to be enslaved. Homegoing drops in on their descendants’ lives on both continents as time passes and they marry and mourn, burn with rage and flood with grief.

    The novel’s morals are clear: fathers should value their daughters, for example; mothers should not be parted from their sons; corporal punishment is almost always a destructive misuse of power. But it never descends into moralizing. And although there are dozens of characters to keep track of, each manages to stand out in some quiet way. Foremost among them is the ex-con coal miner who attains folks hero status as Two-Shovel H. (He was the eighth child of a free black woman in mid–19th century Baltimore who was nonetheless kidnapped and sold into bondage while pregnant and before she and her husband had chosen a name for their unborn son.) And there is Akua, a tragic figure known as the Crazy Woman, who manages to outlive her misfortune and refuses to let it define her. “You have to let yourself be free,” she tells her son, in what could pass as the message of the book.

    Gyasi’s empathy for her characters is generous enough to extend even to warrior kings, greedy slavers, and impoverished drug addicts in Harlem who produce children they can’t support. Throughout, she asks the reader to look down. Referring to the English slaver headquarters on the Gold Coast called the Castle, where some luckier individuals walked, learned, and even prayed mere meters over the heads of others destined for the most abject torture, Gyasi writes, “it was the way most people lived their lives, on upper levels, not stopping to peer underneath.” Though Gyasi does not make it easy for us to peer underneath, she does make it very much worth our while.

  • Nicole Hill 6:15 pm on 2016/05/17 Permalink
    Tags: , , dan vyleta, debut novels, , , victorian era   

    Smoke Puts All Your Darkest Sins on Display 

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    Lust and sin, prim propriety, class inequality, and the roiling dirtiness of the industrial age are all themes ever so thoroughly explored in Victorian fiction. That fascination with wickedness finds new, more literal life in Dan Vyleta’s tightly plotted, expertly inventive Smoke.

    In Vyleta’s alternative England, your misdeeds and ill thoughts plume off of you, issuing forth from your body as tangible smoke. As you might expect in a world where our physical beings telegraph our inner thoughts, the class hierarchy is clearly delineated. The aristocracy, who’ve found ways to master their smoke, use this alleged “purity” as justification for their right to rule. Meanwhile, London, teeming with lower-class workers and families, is cloaked in dense smoke and soot.

    In this world, three youngsters—whose perspectives we get in rotating POV chapters—end up enveloped in a grand scheme far larger than themselves. Best friends and schoolmates Charlie Cooper and Thomas Argyle embark on a quest to better understand the secrets of their own smoke, and along the way uncover a conspiracy complicated by hidden laboratories and experiments, a monstrous school enemy, a grand estate filled with secrets, and Livia Naylor, a headstrong and pious young woman who mesmerizes both boys in different ways.

    The story carries its characters from an upper-crust boarding school to a lush country estate to, finally, the very bowels of filthy, smoking London. Throughout, Vyleta’s strikingly original mixture of Victorian aesthetic and modern storytelling keeps the novel propelling forward, The plight of these Dickensian characters is heightened in its emotional resonance when the narration alternates fluidly between third and first person, gifting us full-bodied portraits of not only the central trio, but a number of characters we meet along the way.

    While it never falters in delivering on its central concept, Smoke reaches its highest points when the story delves into the life of Charlie and Thomas’s rigid boarding school, which, at times, makes poor Jane Eyre’s Lowood School look like a Montessori preschool. Despite the revelations to come as the boys wind their way through the labyrinth of lies and deceptions behind the world they think they know, it is here, at the school, that we learn the most about how their world works, and how it mirrors and opposes our own.

    For example, borrowing from Calvinism’s “total hereditary depravity,” Smoke’s (well-born) children are kept apart from the world for their first nine to ten years, lest they contaminate those around them. You see, kids haven’t yet learned to control their sin, and thus their smoke. They can’t be trusted in polite society until they’ve achieved virtue.

    The boys at school typically arrive shortly after they turn ten, ready now to become good, unstained gentlemen. It causes a stir, then, when Thomas arrives at 16, apparently kept home with his family far beyond the usual age. As his fellow pupils wonder at what horrors could have kept Thomas hidden away for so long, so, too, does Thomas begin to wonder at his own nature.

    Smoke and soot take on different textures; it’s speculated that the color, quantity, and appearance reveal the nature and the depth of the sin. Thomas’s is black as coal and suffocating, tinged with qualities that seem to fascinate some of his instructors and repel others. His struggle with the monster he fears is inside of him kicks off the larger mysteries of Smoke: why do people smoke? Is it a sickness or a curse? Can it be cured, and should it be? Though these questions are above their pay grade, Thomas and Charlie are confronted with them all the same as they become further entwined with Livia—so desperate to maintain her cold purity—and her mother, who coos and calculates with the same enigmatic intensity. Each child struggles under the weight of the revelations they uncover, and each responds in a unique way.

    There’s a deep humanity at the heart of Smoke. Even the most villainous of characters is driven by the emotional trauma of the smoke. The book has a cross-genre appeal that will satisfy readers across constituencies, ensnaring fantasy fans with its bold concept and YA readers with the respect it affords its young protagonists. As the book’s pupils learn to say early in their education, “We thank the smoke.”

  • Nicole Hill 3:35 pm on 2016/05/02 Permalink
    Tags: , debut novels, martin seay, , the mirror thief   

    The Mirror Thief Presents a Mystery Within a Book Within a Book 

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    It’s hard enough to write one book, but in his doorstopper debut, Martin Seay has written three. The Mirror Thief contains three distinct narratives, set in three cities and three eras, which coalesce in a single twisting, turning, metaphysical journey that’s sure to please fans of David Mitchell and Umberto Eco. Those are exalted names, but the depth of these stories and the straightforward artistry of Seay’s writing will woo those looking for a true literary experience. Mysticism and mystery swirl throughout each narrative, fueled by a book passed down through the ages, understood only by a few in each, and appropriately titled The Mirror Thief.

    The three protagonists who carry the action are Curtis, a salty ex-Marine stalking the Las Vegas Strip in search of a compulsive gambler-cum-philosopher from his past; Stanley, the aforementioned gambler whose journey we trace through Venice, California, circa 1958, as he seeks answers about The Mirror Thief; and Crivano, the main character of that book-within-a-book, a 16th-century rogue awash in intrigue and alchemy. Each man is on a quest, searching for solid ground and struggling with concepts of identity and the fantasy of reality. At the center of each story is the mysterious little book of poems and riddles, both perplexing and propulsive in nature.

    What Seay does masterfully is imbue each storyline with its own tone and narrative style. Curtis’s view and voice are distinct from Stanley’s, just as Stanley’s are from Crivano’s. To Stanley, The Mirror Thief is a strange book, sure, but also instructive. Gruff Curtis, meanwhile, offers a book review for the ages, culminating in this assessment: “It’s all supposed to be very smart and serious, but at the same time there’s something goofy and Dungeons-&-Dragons about it, too.”

    The writing never falters, its beauty lying in its deceptive simplicity. (People don’t turn off lights, the “dark comes in behind them.”) There’s little flowery speech, but not a word is wasted. As Curtis gazes at a woman in the Venetian hotel, for example, he describes her appearance in the neutral musings of a casual observer: “She should be pretty but she’s not. A mistaken idea of pretty. Pretty sketched by somebody who’s never seen it, working off a verbal description.”

    To reveal too much about The Mirror Thief‘s supernatural or mystical plot drivers would be to rob you of its immersive sense of discovery, but that one of the settings is Las Vegas is appropriate on a number of levels. A large portion of the modern-day narrative is spent alternately embracing and ruing the ever-changing nature of Sin City, where history seems to crumble day by day. “Las Vegas is a machine for forgetting,” we read, and Curtis, Stanley, and Crivano have plenty they’d like to forget. But there’s always more to learn, another mystery at which to grasp. Magic can be found in a mirror, or a roulette wheel, if you pay attention.

    “I know magic ain’t about sawing ladies in half, or telling the future, or changing Coca-Cola into 7-Up,” Stanley tells the author of the book that toys with him. “I know it’s about seeing a pattern in everything. I want you to show me how.”

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